GILES’S TRIP TO LONDON was a slim book written by the editor of the Eastern Daily Press, James Spilling (1825-1897), a hundred and forty years ago. It is written in Norfolk dialect, but its attraction to me is the not so much the Norfolk speech (which I love), but the picture it gives of life in the nineteenth century. The railway and telecommunications had already shrunk the world, and pointed the way to today’s advances. Many things, however, were still as they had been for hundreds of years.
On his trip to London (Lunnen) Giles was very much the country cousin as you would expect, finding the modern world puzzling. He travelled to Norwich from his home willage by carrier’s cart. Although many things were different, the city is still recognisable today. The castle towered above it all, as it still does, and has done since Norman times. The Walk and Market were the centre of trade. The steam train may have left from Victoria Station. Obviously the railway carriages were smaller in 1870, not on bogies but having 4 or 6 wheels, and there were no corridors, but at least they were by then covered, even the 3rd class.
Spilling does not mention stopping at places like Swainsthorpe, Forncett, or even at Diss or Stowmarket. Both Diss and Stowmarket are still stops today. He does however mention stopping at Haughley, which was the junction for the line to Bury St Edmunds. This line still goes through Newmarket to Cambridge. Haughley is not now a station, but I can remember taking a stopping train to Ipswich which called at all the now long-gone stations along the line.The guard was still delivering the post and taking the churns of milk into his van as he would have done on Giles’s train. Porters carried the goods to and from the guard’s van and the guard waved a green flag and blew his whistle when the train was ready to depart. The signalman threw a lever in his box and the steam engine gathered pace. This was about 1960, although it could have almost been a hundred years earlier. It was a scene of rural life that was soon to vanish for ever.
But we should return to Giles on his way to the capital. At Ipswich Giles had to change trains. The wait was to have been half an hour, but getting into an altercation over some sandwiches he bought at the station, he missed (or lost, in the terminology of the day) his connection to London. Deciding to stay a day in Ipswich, he was amazed at being able to send a telegram to his girlfriend in London, that travelld down the wires and arrived at her house within half an hour.
He was very taken by seeing all the ploughs at Ransomes factory shop; they were the best in the world he said. (Ransomes continues in business making lawn mowers.) Giles was a farm labourer, and with one of these ploughs he could, he claimed, draw the staightest furrow in all England. Next he tooks a voyage by paddle steamer on the river Orwell.
Ipswich station was notable for the ‘big black hole’ that the trains entered there – the tunnel that still adjoins the station. Giles had many more adventures when he eventually got to London, but as that is beyond East Anglia I leave those readers who wish to learn more to read the book. It has been through many editions, and is easy to find and inexpensive to buy. The book gives a fascinating glimpse of the changes brought about by the railway age, viewed through the eyes of a farm labourer whose daily life was still rooted in the past.